Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Emotional Distractions

In the last post, I talked about using distraction if you catch "anger overload" before your child explodes.  Granted many children "overheat" so quickly that distraction will not work, and you are better off then not saying anything and waiting until he calms down (if you child is not harming himself or others).  If you can intervene while your child is revving up, the idea is to use a comment that changes your child's emotional set.  You are trying to communicate to your child's emotional brain, so that what you say might provoke a different emotion in your child, other than anger.  It does not matter if your comment does not make a lot of sense because you are not trying to reach your child's rational brain.  Examples of "emotional distractions" are singing a lyric or telling a wisecrack about yourself (or someone other than your child), which might make your child smile or laugh.  While you sing, or talk about some unusual event (real or fantasy) use facial expressions that are weird or unusual for you.   Maybe you could tell a story (real or imaginary) that grabs your child's attention.  For example, you could say that you think there might have been an elephant pooping on your front yard yesterday and you are not picking up the poop (Poop jokes work with younger children), or you might say that you wonder if someday there will be a computer that would fit inside your skin so that you could play video games in school without the teacher knowing it.  Use your imagination to come up with something that will grab your child's attention.  The idea is to get your child wondering about something or laughing.    If you can get your child to laugh, his anger will diminish greatly.  It is hard to be angry and laugh at the same time! 

The other kind of distraction is an activity that your child likes so much that he forgets about what he was upset about.  For example, you could say you want to bake something for dessert or maybe you could say that you want to go for a bike ride now before it gets dark outside (if it is afternoon).   You could just start getting ready for the activity and your child will probably want to come, or you could ask for his help.  There is a risk of asking your child a question though if he is still mad; he might say no because of his angry state.  So you are usually better off just starting an activity rather than asking for help directly.  If your child asks to help you, just say fine or "cool", and do not bring back up what he had been angry about.  Activities are engrossing and change your child's emotional set, so that his anger will diminish or disappear.

Friday, November 18, 2011

When to ignore and when to restrain an 8 year old

The parents of an eight year old have read my book and finished steps one and two (described in my last post) for anger overload.   They have identified several triggers so far.  One is at bedtime when their child does not want to get ready for bed.  A variation of this occurs when their child gets into his bed but then shortly thereafter comes out to the parents' bedroom and says that he is not tired.   The parents tried returning him to bed, but he kept getting out.  Two other times when their child "lost it" was after school when he wanted to play outside (but it was dark already) and another time when he found out the library would not renew the video he wanted to watch again.   When their child is frustrated, and things do not go his way, he often escalates quickly and starts to scream, curse, and/or throw objects (sometimes pillows, sometimes small objects displayed in the living room), and sometimes bite a sibling.  What should the parents do when their child is already heated up and out of control?

At this point, reasoning and incentives will not work.  The child is overheated and not going to listen to reason.  If someone is about to be hurt or if something valuable is about to be broken, then physical restraint is called for.  The father of this child has held the child (like a bear hug) until he calms down, which can take five to twenty minutes.  Once calmer, the child is more cooperative and no longer threatens to hurt anyone.  At other times, the child has kicked the back of the seat in the car where the parents are sitting, or told them he hates them.  If there is no danger, it is sometimes most effective to do nothing and "play deaf."  This does not mean there are no consequences, but you wait until later in the day to discuss what happened and to announce any consequences.  If you were to discuss consequences while your child is having a tantrum, he would likely escalate further.

If the child is in the early stages of anger, and has not "lost it" yet, then it would be advisable to try distraction or compromise.  It is sometimes difficult to tell whether your child can listen to you without getting more angry, and you then might try to talk and if it is not working you would become quiet and wait for him to calm down.  You could then say you will talk with him a little later after you have thought about things (if you want to say why you are going to be silent).  You really want him to think about things, but you are more likely to provoke an escalation if you were to say that.  One of the times that this eight year old was starting to heat up, the issue was that he would not sleep in his room.  The father suggested to his son that he take a sleeping bag and sleep on the floor of his older brother's room.  This worked because the child had not totally escalated yet and because the child's issue was that he did not want to be alone.  The father came up with an idea to head off a conflict but did not allow the child to sleep in the parents' bed or to play video games, which would have potentially started a "fun" new routine for the child and would have probably been difficult to avoid the next night.  Sometimes if your child is not ready to go to sleep, a quiet activity in his bed, like reading, or drawing a picture, will help him wind down and get ready for sleep.  Sleep is one of those things that cannot be forced, but happens when a person winds down.  You cannot make a child turn off his "motor" but you can suggest conditions that will help him get sleepy. I will discuss the techniques of distraction and compromise a lot more in future posts.

Monday, November 14, 2011

First steps to help child with anger overload

Many questions I get online and in my office have to do with anger overload.  Children or teens with this problem get very angry for brief periods of time.  They say and do things which are uncharacteristically extreme:  shouting, swearing, threatening to hit someone, throwing things.  Most of the time these children are not acting like this; parents report their children usually are calm and easy to deal with.

So what is going on here?  These children have not yet developed the cortical controls to deal with the upsurge in emotions when they are disappointed or frustrated.  One way to think of this biologically is that the limbic system of these children (the emotional center of the brain) is aroused, but the frontal cortex (outer layer of the brain responsible for self-control) has not fully developed yet.  The cortex continues to develop into early adulthood. 

What we want to do is help children develop greater self-control, in other words, to promote cortical controls.  The first two steps for parents are 1) observe the situations where your child loses it:  what are the triggers?  Who is your child angry at and why?  Is there a pattern?  Once you have some idea of the triggers, you will begin to 2) frame the problem for your child and let him know you are going to work on this with him over the next several months.   If your child gets very angry whenever he cannot play his video games (for example), you would point this out when your child is calm, and explain that you are going to help him develop ways to better control his anger.  Give an example of an alternative to screaming or cursing:  He could say that he is angry or that he does not like your rules.  You might even tell him he could raise his voice so long as he does not curse.  What you are doing here is providing an alternative that is within the realm of possibility for your child.  (You can try for more self-control in the future if your child can master the first step of not cursing.)

Explain that this is important because it will help him deal with all kinds of things that don't go his way in the future.  People will respect him better if he figures out a way to work things out without screaming or cursing.  You are trying to frame the issue and at the same time motivate your child to work on this with you.  You are letting him know it will be a team effort; you are not expecting him to do this alone.  If your child does not say much at this point, that is okay.  If he says he doesn't care, you could reply that one of his buddies someday may hear him lose it and then not want to play with him.  Or think of another reason which might be important to your child.  Another reason might be that he will be more likely to get people to listen to what he wants if he does not scream at them.  Do not argue with your child if he says it is not important to him.  You are just trying to frame the issue for your child, and you do not need his agreement at this point. Your child may be defensive and unwilling to admit he has a problem.  However, you are beginning to chip away at his denial.  You are letting your child know that this is an issue you are going to be focusing on.  More in my next post.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

14 year old's angry outbursts

"I just read your article on anger overload on greatschools.com and it fits our 14 (almost 15) year old to a tee. From the time he was very little, he's had these angry outbursts that are uncontrollable and pretty severe. After he calms down, he is the sweetest kid. He is very sensitive, hates to get in trouble and is embarrassed that he can't control his behavior. He has been in several schools and we finally thought we got it right at the arts school he currently attends, but he is a few months into the year and just had another blowout today.

We have tried counseling a couple of times, but it didn't seem to help. I know he likes this school and doesn't want to have to leave it--last time we pulled him out and he did online school, he was miserable. He has no problems getting along with friends--just certain teachers (some of his teachers see him as a great, participative student!). His dad and I have been concerned for quite some time, but now that he's in high school, I'm very concerned about the impact this is going to start having on the rest of his life--he's not a little kid any more.

We have no trouble with him at home. He does experience quite a bit of anxiety and often has trouble sleeping. We are not sure what to do next--rewards and consequences have had no impact on changing his behavior in the past. We took him to a child psychologist who said just to pull him out of school, and that he did not have a specific, diagnosable disorder, but your description of anger overload sure seems to fit perfectly.

Any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated."

Here are my thoughts:  There are two issues which you raise, which may or may not be related.  One issue feels like anger overload, as you suggested, but the second concern you raise, anxiety, is not necessarily a part of anger overload.  First, what I would recommend is observing when his anger occurs in school.  What are the teachers saying or doing when he gets angry?  Also, what does he say or do during the outbursts?  Look for a pattern.  Since you say he is sensitive, I wonder if he feels criticized or put down before he gets angry?  Is he being admonished  in some way?   What was he doing, if anything, before the teachers' remarks to him?  Some other questions to think about:  How far does your son go?   Does he swear, is he disrespectful, or does he get mad but not blow up directly at the teacher?  If you want, let me know the pattern, or think about it yourself, because this will give you more clues about what to do.

If he is feeling criticized, then you can approach it in several ways: 1) help him "re-frame" the teacher's comments.  For example, some kids react negatively to any critical remark, and it may help him to realize that the teacher talks like this to other students (if that is the case).  2) Then teach your son about "self-talk":  that is, teach him to talk in his head that "it is okay, the teacher does this with others, and it is okay to get called out once in a while."  Help your son learn how to reassure himself.  3) Can he take a break if he feels he is heating up, and ask to go to the bathroom until he feels calmer, or does he heat up too quickly? 

Since most of the questions I am getting on the blog are about anger overload, in the coming weeks, I am going to outline techniques in six areas:  1) behavior management, 2) how to model self-control techniques for your child, 3) self-observation skills, 4) changing your child's emotional set, and 5) changing the way your child looks at things, 6) helping your child learn to compromise.  A few of these areas I talk about in my book, but I will give you more specifics on the blog as I get time over the next month or so.

Regarding the other issue you mention, your son's anxiety, what triggers it for him?  Keep a record of when he gets anxious, what is going on in the hour before he gets anxious, and what he does once he gets anxious.  Does anything help him so far to feel calmer.  There are many techniques that can be helpful for anxiety, including physical relaxation techniques, cognitive re-framing (listing your negative thoughts when you get anxious, and then listing more positive ways of looking at the situation, and practice saying these more positive explanations in your head before stressful situations), and gradual desensitization (approaching low anxiety situations before more difficult ones).  There are other approaches too, and it depends on what the triggers are.  There are many psychologists and other mental health professionals trained in cognitive behavioral approaches to anxiety, and you might want to ask in your area who is trained in these approaches for anxiety.  Good luck, and let me know if you have further questions or comments.